Wednesday evening’s 96-81 win over Detroit at the United Center was just another ho-hum preseason game for Taj Gibson, who had 11 points and 12 rebounds in the Bulls’ win over the Pistons.
While Derrick Rose’s Chicago homecoming was the theme of the night, Gibson’s consistently stellar play has been a constant throughout the team’s undefeated exhibition campaign. Now in his fifth NBA season, Gibson’s high-energy presence on the team’s second unit during Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau’s tenure — he assumed a starting role during his rookie season, Vinny Del Negro’s final year as head coach, taking Tyrus Thomas’ spot before the former lottery pick was traded to Charlotte — in its many forms has been something the squad has been able to count on, but now, as a veteran and fully healthy after last year’s injury-plagued season, the Brooklyn native has found a comfort zone.
“I feel comfortable. Every year, it’s been tough because we’ve always got a new group and fortunately, I’m one of the last standing from previous groups and every year, I’m just trying to figure out timing,” he explained. “Luckily, I’ve got Kirk, I’ve got Naz. I know where they want the ball, where they want to get it. It’s just about figuring out the rooks, figuring out Marquis. That’s the only thing, but so far, it’s been cool.”
Gibson was a major part of the “Bench Mob,” which earned a cult following during its two-year reign, and he admittedly struggled when the likes of Omer Asik, Ronnie Brewer, Kyle Korver and C.J. Watson departed. Although injuries were partially responsible for an uneven season — trying to live up to expectations of a new contract extension didn’t help matters — with Mohammed and Hinrich, a starter last season, back and an experienced veteran like Mike Dunleavy Jr. in the fold, despite losing valuable contributors like guards Nate Robinson and Marco Belinelli to free agency (and Jimmy Butler to a permanent starting role), Gibson believes the Bulls’ group of reserves has a lot of potential.
“I think we could be real dangerous,” he said. “You’ve got Kirk Hinrich coming off the bench and he’s so crafty, so smart. As soon as I got in the game, I got two easy, quick jump shots, just off him being smart and moving the ball. He’s looking for me, which is great.”
Most of all, though, it’s Gibson’s offseason preparation, combined with his strong relationship with Thibodeau, that’s allowed him to hit the ground running.
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“I’m confident. Thibs and I made a list of things I want to do. I just wanted to work on my game all summer, just get stronger, have confidence. He talked to me almost every day. We just talked about the Knicks [Thibodeau previously coached Gibson’s hometown team], previous playoff teams and he just wanted me to have confidence,” Gibson recounted. “He said, ‘The more you give, you’re going to get,’ and so far, everything he wanted me to do, it’s been happening. It’s been great. He said, ‘I want you to come in and gain some weight. I want you to be mentally ready. I want you to be focused, be a leader, have a great training camp, especially in practice. Then, have a great preseason, just run away with it.’ So far, it’s been just like that. I’m having fun out there.”
The notoriously hard-to-please coach has been satisfied with his pupil’s progress.
“He’s put a lot of work in. He did a lot of work this summer with Mike Wilhelm and he’s preparing himself to play extremely well right now. When he practices well, he plays well and he’s been our best practice player,” Thibodeau said. “Offensively [Wednesday], it was a little choppy and that was maybe a byproduct of the rotation changing with Jo being back. But what I did like is he really rebounded the ball extremely well and he found ways to help us. He’s had a great preseason.”
Gibson, who often plays with the Bulls’ starters and can play either post position, has also showcased an improved offensive game during the preseason, but according to him, whatever opposing defenses throw at him in actual games is nothing compared to what he sees at the Berto Center.
“We’re a real physical team and we challenge each other every day. It’s not like it’s a regular practice. We really go at each other,” he said. “We talk trash, we go at it. It’s showing by the way we’ve been practicing, but it’s only going to get better.”
If that also goes for Gibson’s individual game, this should be his best season yet.